Illegal Serves

February 24, 2012

Service fault controversies

Over the past 14 months (and many tournaments) I've been involved in six specific incidents involving hidden serves. Five different times I've called for umpires or complained to umpires about opponents hiding their serves against a player I was coaching. Each case became a controversy as either the umpire wouldn't call the hidden serve, or if they did, and the opponent (or his coach or others in his contingent) became quite unhappy. In the other case where I complained about a fault on my player, an umpire simply got the rules wrong and faulted my player incorrectly for hiding a serve that clearly wasn't hidden. (Just for the record - players I coach were also correctly faulted several times along the way. Only that one time did I complained about a service fault called against a player I coached.)

Other than unhappy people, what's the one thing each case had in common? In every case I was right about the serve, as shown by video and photo sequences taken from the video. (I'm not going to fan the flames by publishing them, but if you were directly involved in one of these hidden serve controversies, feel free to email me and I'll show you the video and photo sequences.)

This isn't bragging. It's rather easy to see if a serve is hidden or not from the sidelines behind the players, where the coach sits, far easier than it is for the umpire off to the side. It's not a matter of being able to tell if the serve is hidden; it's a matter of choosing to speak up rather than let the opponent have the advantage of illegally hiding their serve. Some think a player or coach should just live with the disadvantage of having to face hidden serves, but I just don't buy that.

I generally don't worry about illegal serves unless the opponent is getting a serious advantage out of it. This usually means only on hidden serves, where players hide the ball with their arm, shoulder, body, or head. Other service rules are often abused, but none cause nearly as much trouble for the receiver as hidden serves. (Quick-serving out of the hand is sometimes a problem, but is so obviously illegal that any competent umpire will call it on the first instance.)

I've heard some crazy rationales for why it's "okay" to hide one's serve. (Note - hiding the serve means hiding the ball from the opponent during the serve motion, which is illegal, making it difficult for the opponent to read the spin on the serve. Usually this means hiding contact; sometimes it means hiding the ball until the split second before contact, when it's almost impossible to pick up the contact.) Here are some paraphrases of some of the best excuses:

  • "No one's called me on it before." (I know of at least one player who has used this excuse probably a dozen times. Thank about that! But even if it were true, then that doesn't change the fact that the serve is illegal; it simply means there has been lax umpiring.)
  • "That's the way everyone's serving." (Not true, but a lot do get away with it.)
  • "Why would you call me on serves?" (Because you are hiding your serve.)
  • "I'll call my opponent for serving illegally in practice, but no way should you call him on it in a tournament." (This is one of the stranger ones.)
  • "He's from your own player's club!" (So why is he hiding his serve against someone from his club who is not hiding his serve?)

It is true that many players get away with serving illegally, and umpires are notorious for not calling hidden serves in international matches. It's unfortunate but true that to compete internationally, our top players may have to develop hidden serves to compete against opponents who hide their serves and the umpire doesn't call it. And I have no problem with players hiding their serve if the opponent is doing so. But you better learn to serve legally if you are called for it - without argument - and you really shouldn't hide your serve against an opponent who is serving legally.

Unfortunately, these incidents have caused a lot of tension and are rather frustrating. Some think players and coaches shouldn't call opponents for hiding their serves, and are quick to show their anger at those who do. Others simply angrilly deny that the serves are hidden, despite the many witnesses (often including umpires and referees) and video that show otherwise. Alas.

By the way, in 36 years and about 600 tournaments, I've been faulted for my serve exactly once - and the umpire and referee both admitted afterwards they had made a mistake, that the serve was legal and shouldn't have been faulted. What happened? I'll write about that next week.

Service seminars

I plan on running a series of one-hour Serving Seminars at the Maryland Table Tennis Center, probably starting sometime in April or May. These will cover serving technique from beginning to advanced. The seminars will be both lecture/demonstration and on-the-table practice. Afterwards I may keep up a weekly 30-minute service session where players can get together and practice their serves. More on this later!

2012 U.S. Open

Here it is, the home page for the 2012 U.S. Open in Grand Rapids, Michigan, June 30-July 4. See you there!

Table Tennis Sports Psychology Book

Here's a new table tennis sports psychology book, "Get Your Game Face On! Table Tennis" by Dora Kurimay and Kathy Toon. I've downloaded it to my Kindle but haven't read it yet.

Kessel’s Handy Guide to Ruining Volleyball Player

While this was written for volleyball coaches, most of it applies to table tennis coaches as well! Some of my favorites:

  • "Never show what you want, if one thousand words will do.  All explanations should be as wordy as possible to demonstrate your vast knowledge of the game."
  • "Make sure to always tell the player what he or she did wrong."
  • "Teach volleyball [table tennis] the way it is supposed to be taught, on the chalkboard."
  • "Make sure to bawl players out about their mistakes, win or lose.  It is better to do this in front of a whole gym full of spectators, rather than in the locker room, or worse, one on one in private."

Table Tennis Benefit for Alzheimer's

Adam Bobrow, Susan Sarandon, and Soo Yeon Lee are among those who will take part in this benefit on March 4 in Los Angeles.

Kuwait Open Highlights Tape

Here's a highlights video (3:38) from the Kuwait Open of Jun Mizutani (JPN) vs. Kim Min Seok (KOR) in the quarterfinals, set to music.

Lady Antebellum Table Tennis

After a sold-out show on Feb. 17, the members of this country pop music group put on "The First Annual Lady A Ping-Pong Classic" (3:09).

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December 12, 2011

Tip of the Week

Depth control of serves.

The USA Nationals, Christmas Vacation, and a Sabbatical

After today, I'm taking a short sabbatical from blogging. My next blog will be next Monday, Dec. 19 (right after I return from the USA Nationals), and my next one after that will be when I resume blogging regularly (Mon-Fri) on Dec. 27. 

I'm leaving for the USA Nationals this morning, returning next Saturday. Then on Monday I leave for Santa Barbara, CA, for Christmas with family, returning on a red-eye flight on Christmas night that lands back in Maryland about 8AM on Dec. 26, in time for the MDTTC Christmas camp I coach at that starts that afternoon.

Yes, I know, the Nationals is exactly the time I should have lots to blog about, but I'm going to be extremely busy there, coaching, playing, and attending meetings, and expect to be leaving for the playing site early each morning and returning late.

I'm primarily going to the Nationals to coach, but I'm also entered in three hardbat events: Hardbat Singles (which I've won twice at the Open or Nationals), Over 40 Hardbat (I'm four-time and defending champion) and Hardbat Doubles (I'm 11-time and current champion, and playing with Ty Hoff - we've won it seven times).

I've spent way too much time in recent weeks working on my new table tennis book, watching videos of players that students of mine might be playing, and other sedentary projects at my computer, and now my back has stiffened up again, alas. Hopefully it'll loosen up when I play. However, as is the norm for me (since stiff muscles and coaching regularly don't mix well), I'm continually in a state of various injuries. Currently there's something in the back of my left knee that's hobbling me; my left Achilles tendon feels strained; and there's a strain in my right side. And why is my left big toe hurting? (I think I stepped on something sharp.) Par for me.

Table Tennis Tactics: A Thinker's Guide

I finished editing it this weekend. The "final" version is 81,066 words, with 21 chapters. In Courier New, double spaced, it prints out at 352 pages. I have a few people who are reading/critiquing it, and I'll probably do one more proofing. I have a publisher interested, though I'm toying with self-publishing. I'll look into the options in January.

Upcoming ITTF Coaching Seminars in the USA

Thirtieth Anniversary Ping-Pong Diplomacy in China

There's a U.S. contingent touring China - and here are links to a number of articles on it. And here's another that features Dell & Connie Sweeris.

Ma Long

Here's an article on the personal side of China's world #1.

Ma Lin's unbelievable (but illegal) serve

Here's a 19-second video of an unbelievable serve by China's Ma Lin. The ball curves so much not because of sidespin, but because of corkscrewspin, with the axis of rotation aimed away from Ma toward the server. (With sidespin, the axis would be up and down.) You can only get this much corkscrewspin with a high-toss serve, such as this one - see how high he tosses the ball. Some other world-class players probably have similar serves, you just don't see several bounces like this because the receiver normally hits the ball after the first bounce - and in this case, Ma has completely fooled the receiver, world champion Zhang Jike, who didn't see the sudden break coming, and thought the serve would go long.

Fantastic serve, but how many people noticed that he illegally hid contact with his arm? Freeze the video at contact and you'll see - you may have to make several attempts to get it. Or just see the image I took from the video. The arrows show the ball and his hand and arm. The rules say:

"From the start of service until it is struck, the ball shall ... not be hidden from the receiver by the server or his or her doubles partner or by anything they wear or carry."

"As soon as the ball has been projected, the server’s free arm and hand shall be removed from the space between the ball and the net."

"It is the responsibility of the player to serve so that the umpire or the assistant umpire can be satisfied that he or she complies with the requirements of the Laws." 

It's possible that the receiver, Zhang, can barely see contact, but it's close - Ma's arm is rapidly moving out of the way, and the split second before this picture, the arm was completely in the way. It's the server's responsibility to serve so the umpire is satisfied that he is serving legally, and no umpire could possibly say that he is satisfied that this serve was not hidden. But we don't even have to go that far - the serve is blatantly illegal since he has left his free arm and hand between the ball and the net.

Table tennis going to the dogs

Let's watch 52 seconds of a Pekingese playing floor table tennis.

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November 15, 2011

Tip of the Week

Forehands from the Backhand Corner

Wang Hao's Illegal Serve

Here's Wang Hao against Zhang Jike in the final of the Men's World Cup this past weekend. Over and over Wang's serves are blatantly illegal. And yet, in one of the biggest matches of the year, with huge numbers of spectators (live or online), with coaches, players, and up-and-coming juniors watching, the umpires very publicly do not call it.

First, when Wang serves, notice how he always leaves his arm out until the last second, when the rules say, "As soon as the ball has been projected, the server’s free arm and hand shall be removed from the space between the ball and the net." I'm using his second serve in the video as an example (the first one was partly cut off), which starts eight seconds in. Here's a picture just before the ball drops behind his arm. He clearly did not remove his arm "as soon as the ball has been projected." Essentially all his serves are like this.

Second, notice how he hides contact with the arm? Here's another picture, a split second after the one above, where the ball has now disappeared from view - and note that he still has not removed his arm. Zhang is to our left and has a slightly better view, but contact is easily hidden from him by the arm in this picture. And yet, the rules state, "From the start of service until it is struck, the ball ... shall not be hidden from the receiver by the server or his or her doubles partner or by anything they wear or carry."

Here's his first serve in game two.  Look at the racket, ball, and arm. His arm is directly between the ball and the opponent. Can anyone possibly say this is even remotely legal? Or this one, his second serve in game two, right at contact with his arm hiding it? Essentially every one of his serves are like these. (Earlier I had put up this randomly-chosen picture from later in the match, but I decided that made it looked like I was picking and choosing, so I changed to the ones he did right at the start of games one and two.)

Any umpire should be able to see that Wang is obviously not removing his arm from between the ball and the net, and that he is hiding contact with his arm. Even if they aren't 100% sure whether he is hiding contact, the rules state, "It is the responsibility of the player to serve so that the umpire or the assistant umpire can be satisfied that he or she complies with the requirements of the Laws, and either may decide that a service is incorrect." And yet, it doesn't get called.

This is frustrating to watch because if umpires will not call illegal serves, then the players who practice illegal hidden serves have a tremendous advantage. It's almost impossible to return hidden serves effectively unless you practice regularly against them, and you can't do that unless the other players you train with are also hiding their serves. If you are coaching a junior program, you can either 1) teach the juniors to serve illegally, or 2) don't teach them to serve illegally, and watch them lose to those who do because umpires won't follow the rules, and so are cheating the honest players.

Training with Timo Boll

Here are four great training segments with Timo Boll, world #2 and European #1.

Each segment is about 2.5 minutes, totaling just over ten minutes. For segments 2-4, his partner is Vladimir Samsonov. (You'll need to spend a lot of time in the Jim, I mean gym, to get the long and short of this shot. This is my way of mentioning that Jim Short first posted this video.)

  • 0:30: Forehand pendulum serve, including reverse pendulum. See how fast he whips the racket into the shot at the last second.
  • 2:27: Receive - flips, short push, long push, and loops.
  • 5:28: Forehand Loop - the Europeans just call it "topspin." One interesting note - Timo is known for changing his grip to a forehand grip when he forehand loops, but in the demonstration here he is using a neutral grip. You should always learn to loop that way or you risk developing bad habits. Some advanced players adjust their grip after their shots are ingrained.
  • 8:02: Backhand Loop. Watch the slow motion of the backhand loop, and see the shoulder motion? (Here it is again from a different angle.) I had a big argument with a U.S. National coach over this, who said the shoulder should be still during a backhand loop, with the entire shot rotating around the stationary elbow only. Actually, the shoulder moves early in the stroke, essentially dragging the arm up and setting the elbow rotation into motion like a whip. I know this not just from watching and learning from top players and coaches, but also because I have a very tight shoulder that makes the motion somewhat difficult for me. I actually have a decent backhand loop in drills, but in a match situation, because of the stiffness, my hitting zone seems about the size of a ping-pong ball. Recently it's improved, and I'm using it more against deep pushes instead of doing more usual step around forehand loop from the backhand corner.

Pongcast TV Episode 03 - 2011 World Team Cup

Here's Pongcast's video on the 2011 World Team Cup, their third video, just over 30 minutes long.

Video of the Day

Here's Table Tennis Spectacular, Part 2 (7:47).

Table Tennis on the Simpsons

Yes, here's Bart Simpson playing table tennis! This segment is only 14 seconds, and he's only playing part of it, but in the actual episode (which I saw), the table tennis playing goes on a bit longer.

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